December 16/07

Bible Reading of the day
Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew 17,10-13. Then the disciples asked him, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?"
He said in reply, "Elijah will indeed come and restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist

Releases. Reports & Opinions
Don't trust nuke sneaks-By: Victor Davis Hanson. Chicago Tribune-December 15/07
Illegals from Syria – are there lessons to be learnt.Financial Mirror--December 15/07

A rivalry transcending a nuclear Iran-By Michael Young-December 15/07

Latest News Reports From Miscellaneous Sources for December 15/07
US envoy visits Lebanon amid political crisis-AFP
Lebanon: Sarkozy calls to elect president on Monday as slain ...Al-Bawaba
Lebanon at the edge-Boston Globe
US says time for Lebanon to vote for president-Reuters
As tension between Israel and Syria remains high. International Middle East Media Center
Lebanon mourns slain general, France sends warning-Reuters
NKorea may have helped Hezbollah
-Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Lebanon buries murdered general-Financial Times

Lebanon in mourning for slain general-AFP
Pope decries bombing in Lebanon, prays for peace-Catholic World News
Sfeir for Speedy Presidential Election-Naharnet
Lebanon bids farewell to
Lebanese army calls for unity at funeral of murdered general-
Hajj Laid to Rest-Naharnet
Thousands Throng El-Hajj's Funeral-Naharnet
Sarkozy Threats to Isolate Forces that Would Try Block Lebanon's 'Last Chance" to Elect President-Naharnet

Makari Targets Berri for Losing Eligibility, Hassan Khalil Hits Back-Naharnet
Hamadeh Predicts International Pressure on Syria at 'Beirut Spring Level"-Naharnet
Qassem: No Presidential Election Without Parcel Agreement on Government-Naharnet

Lebanon lays assassinated general to rest-Daily Star
Israeli Army faces recruitment trouble because of botched war-AFP
Fadlallah slams 'rigid' political class, warns of more instability-Daily Star
An open letter from Khalass! on the murder of General Hajj-Daily Star

Sarkozy warns politicians have 'last chance' on Monday-Daily Star
Lebanese crisis 'reflects' frayed ties between Syria and West-Daily Star
Lebanese crisis puts telecom sell-off at risk-Daily Star

AUB conference tackles themes of Palestinian citizenship, identity-Daily Star
BIEL book fair salutes freedom of speech-Daily Star
New report sheds light on plight of 50,000 Iraqis in Lebanon-Daily Star
Lebanese Politicians Pay Hommage to Slain General-Daily Star
Lebanon buries assassinated general-AP
Khatami, Rafsanjani headline new coalition to counter Ahmadinejad-Daily Star
Lebanon looking for clues following general assassination-Al-Bawaba - Amman,Jordan
Syria faces subsidy crunch as oil exports drop-Guardian Unlimited
Syria condemns assassination of senior Lebanese officer-Xinhua

Welch Urges Lebanese to Elect President to Restore Dignity, Face Challenges

U.S. Middle East envoy David Welch called on Lebanon's warring leaders on Saturday to elect a new president "to restore dignity and respect" to a position that has been vacant for three weeks. "The United States believes that it is time now to elect a new president," Welsh told reporters ahead of a new session of parliament called for Monday to elect a head of state after eight previous attempts since September failed. Welch said all MPs must "fulfil their duty" to elect a president in order "to restore dignity and respect to the most important Christian office." "This is what Lebanon needs to face the challenges ... We know there are many pressures," Welch said, reiterating Washington's support for Lebanon as it faces its worst crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war. Lebanon has been without a president since Emile Lahoud stepped down November 23 without a successor in place. Prime Minister Fouad Saniora's government has been unable to reach agreement with the Syrian- and Iranian-backed opposition on a replacement for the pro-Syrian Lahoud. Welch was speaking after talks with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir.
After meeting Sfeir he went into talks with Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.  Welch was due to meet later Saturday with both Saniora and pro-opposition Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. His visit came a day after a state funeral for Brigadier General Francois el-Hajj who was killed in a car bombing on Wednesday.
Hajj had been tipped to become army chief if a compromise plan to elect incumbent General Michel Suleiman as president is accepted by MPs on Monday.
His election requires an amendment to the constitution which bars government employees from becoming head of state within two years of leaving their jobs.(Naharnet-AFP) Beirut, 15 Dec 07, 11:08

Bush Demands Syria to Release Activists, Including Man Jailed for Seeking Better Relations with Lebanon

U.S. President George Bush called on Syria to immediately release dozens of opposition activists reportedly arrested this week amid events marking International Human Rights Day. "All those detained should be released immediately," Bush said in a statement days after human rights groups said Syria issued summonses and arrested dozens of opposition activists on Sunday and Monday. The crackdown targeted around 30 people who signed the 2005 Damascus Declaration calling for "radical change" in Syria and took part in a 163-person protest held on December 1, the groups said.
Security officials visited the home of writer and protester Akram Bunni, who was elected as secretary of the National Declaration of Damascus Council on December 1, the rights groups and a member of his family added. In April, his brother, human rights lawyer Anwar Bunni, was jailed for five years after signing the declaration on relations between Lebanon and Syria, its former powerbroker. The declaration called for Syrians to work in a peaceful manner for radical change and saying the creation of a "national democratic regime" was the way to achieve this change. Bush applauded the creation of the council, saying "the brave men and women who formed this council reflect the desires of the majority of Syrian people to live in freedom, democracy, and peace, both at home and alongside their neighbors in the region." "The Syrian regime continues to deny its citizens fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of movement, and the right to elect a representative government responsive to their needs," he said. "The formation of the National Council is an encouraging sign to all people who support freedom and democracy. We support the National Council's principles of non-violent struggle and open membership to all the people of Syria who believe the time has come for change," said Bush.(AFP) Beirut, 15 Dec 07, 13:27

March 14 Considering New Alternative
With the ruling majority not willing to retract Gen. Michel Suleiman's nomination to be the next president for Lebanon, the March 14 alliance was reportedly considering a new alternative.  The daily As Safir, citing a governmental source, said the cabinet will submit a draft law on Monday "officially" requesting Parliament to amend Article 49 of the constitution. But sources close to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri told As Safir that Berri will not receive the bill in harmony with his previous stance vis-à-vis this issue. Berri said in remarks published by As Safir on Saturday that there are many ways to ratify a constitutional amendment without having to pass through the government "and they are all 100 percent constitutional." The daily said Berri had informed the French charge d'affaire of the opposition's decision on the assignment of Gen. Michel Aoun as its negotiator based on a "basket of political understanding." Beirut, 15 Dec 07, 09:24

Sarkozy Threatens to Isolate Forces that Would Try Block "Last Chance" to Elect President

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday cautioned against blocking Lebanon's "last chance" to elect a president next week, vowing that forces behind such a scheme would be isolated by France and other states.
Sarkozy served the warning on the sidelines of an EU summit in Brussels, hours after Lebanese Communications Minister Marwan Hamadeh said international wrath would fall on Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime if it maintained efforts to block the presidential election process.
Sarkozy was quoted by AFP as urging all sides in Lebanon to grab a "last chance" next week to finally elect a president after a series of postponements.
"Monday is really the last chance, and France calls on all parties, inside and outside, to ensure that Lebanon can have a president," he said.
"Those would take the risk of killing off that chance would cut themselves off from a number of countries, first among them France," Sarkozy warned.
Hours before Sarkozy issued his warning, Hamadeh –visiting France- predicted international pressure on Damascus at "Beirut Spring level" that led to the withdrawal of Syria's army from Lebanon in 2005, ending three generations of dominance.
Such pressures, he said, would be exerted on Damascus if it continued to block Lebanon's presidential election that is scheduled for Monday.
He also said France is determined on exposing efforts exerted to block presidential elections in Lebanon.
Hamadeh, in an interview with Voice of Lebanon radio from Paris, said he has met French officials, including Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
"We felt that the French are determined on exerting more pressure on the external authority that is considered to be blocking the presidential election.
We also felt a determination by French officials on putting an end to silence, and probably expose all the blocking operation," Hamadeh added.
He said a parliamentary session set for Monday is sort of a "cross road, by which if it became evident that the intended blocking is continuing … there will be a declared stand regarding this approach, probably a French stand and an International one too."
Hamadeh said that forces blocking the presidential election "will be surprised by international reaction that could be at the level of the spring of the year 2005, when the Syrian army was driven out of Lebanon."
He concluded by stressing that Lebanon is facing a "scheme to prevent the election of a president. The source of this scheme is known. It is the Syrian capital and the Syrian regime.""They will all be surprised in the coming few hours and days by the response to this scheme of blocking the presidential election," Hamadeh vowed. Beirut, 14 Dec 07, 19:41

Lebanese Forces Sues Retired Army Officer Over False Criminal Charges
The Lebanese Forces on Saturday filed a law suit against retired Brig. Gen. Walid Sukariyeh over false criminal allegations made up against the group following the assassination of Brig. Gen. Francois el-Hajj. A statement by the Lebanese Forces said that Sukariyeh made false and biased statements claiming that the Lebanese Forces was behind Hajj's murder. Sukariyeh had said that the assassination of Hajj was aimed at preventing him from becoming army commander.
"His assassination serves the interests of the U.S., Israel and the Lebanese Forces," Sukariyeh said. Beirut, 15 Dec 07, 14:10

Lebanon lays assassinated general to rest
Thousands come out for funeral procession to honor 'heroic martyr'

By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff
Saturday, December 15, 2007
BEIRUT: The Lebanese Armed Forces buried assassinated General Francois Hajj on Friday, invoking the symbolism of the highly emotional event to call for an end to deep political division that have brought the country to a standstill. Thousands crowded into the Maronite basilica at Harissa, north of Beirut, as the flag-draped coffin of the LAF's chief of operations - killed along with his bodyguard, First Sergeant Kheirallah Hedwan, by a car bomb on Wednesday - was carried in. Mourners applauded as a gesture of respect for Hajj, who directed the military's campaign against Islamist militants at Nahr al-Bared last summer.
The funeral Mass was presided over by Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, who lamented the "huge tragic loss" of a brave leader. It was also carefully orchestrated by the military as a call for national unity and reconciliation.
Church bells tolled as Hajj's coffin was carried into the basilica by army officers. Dozens of officers and enlisted men stood at attention, while other saluted, some weeping, as the coffin went by. A number of high-ranking army officers flanked the coffin at the altar, swords drawn.
Across the country, a day of national mourning was observed as schools and universities closed and flags flew at half-mast.
Earlier, Hajj's remains were brought from the LAF Hospital in Badaro to his home in Baabda, where residents showered the coffin with rice and rose petals. An honor guard lined the street as the coffin was carried by officers and an army band played a funeral dirge. The cortege was escorted by LAF helicopters all the way to Harissa.
The LAF's commander, General Michel Suleiman, vowed to catch the killers.
"Be assured, O heroic martyr, that we will not spare any effort in hunting down your assassins so that they get their just punishment," Suleiman said in a statement read out at the funeral by Major General Shawqi al-Masri. "Your blood was not spilled in vain; it will pave the road to Lebanon's unity."
The statement called on all Lebanese politicians to take a "historic stance" to build "bridges of trust" between rival parties and achieve reconciliation and consensus rapidly, without setting pre-conditions. "The spilled blood of the martyr requires from us sacrifices to stop all political wrangling, so that mutual trust emerges as the only guarantee for all parties," Suleiman said. "These messages in blood," he added, "do not target the army alone, but target our nation as a whole." He urged rival parties to abandon self-interest and unite on common ground. "The hand of treachery, by targeting you, our heroic martyr, has assailed our military establishment, thinking by doing so it can deter the army from carrying out its national duty," Suleiman's said in his statement. "What the terrorists failed to realize is that every time they kill one of us the army's resolve to overcome all dangers and difficulties only increases."
"This is a huge tragic loss; it is not just about an officer but about a nation thrown into danger," Sfeir told the mourners.
The prelate added that despite the loss, the army would remain the "nation's shield and protector, as it proved at Nahr al-Bared."
"Assassinations have continued without mercy for three years, and today the hand of treachery has reached the army and its brave leaders," Sfeir said. He added that Lebanon continues to lose many of the "most passionate defenders" of its flag, its identity and its principles.
"The victims have been from among the nation's MPs, the finest of its children and its defenders, whether they championed the free word or held courageous views and ideas and refused to bow down," Sfeir added. "It is as if [the 170 army soldiers who perished at Nahr al-Bared] were not enough to satisfy those envious of our peaceful country, which only wants what is good for all peoples, especially those closest to us."
The Maronite bishop of Tyre, Shukrallah Nabil al-Hajj, read out a papal blessing on the deceased from Pope Benedict XVI, who sent his condolences on Hajj's death at a "crucial and critical moment in the country's history."
The cortege left Harissa at mid-day and began its long journey south, arriving in Hajj's hometown of Rmeish six hours later. As the procession passed through Sidon, mourners lined both sides of the road. A huge banner read "The South embraces its martyred son, General Francois Hajj."
The head of the municipality of Sidon and Zahrani, Abdel-Rahman al-Bizri, was on hand to pay his respects to Hajj's son Elie, who expressed his gratitude to all who attended."I want to thank you and all the people of the South because you did not forget this hero and know his true worth more than anyone," Hajj said.
After reaching Rmeish, the coffin was paraded through the streets of the village before Hajj was laid to rest at the family plot. His close relatives later received condolences at the family home in Rmeish. Apart from Suleiman, among those attending the funeral were: Defense Minister Elias Murr, representing Premier Fouad Siniora; MP Antoine Khoury, representing Speaker Nabih Berri; former President Amin Gemayel; Change and Reform bloc leader MP Michel Aoun; Democratic Gathering head MP Walid Jumblatt; and Lebanese Forces boss Samir Geagea.

Investigators 'work silently' to find assassins
Daily Star: BEIRUT: State prosecutor Said Mirza told The Daily Star that investigators are "working silently" on uncovering the perpetrators behind the assassination of Lebanese Armed Forces operations chief, General Francois Hajj. "The moment we have anything to say we will announce it, I cannot say anything right now," Mirza said. He told AFP no formal arrests had been made but several people had been detained and questioned.
Defense Minister Elias Murr, speaking on LBC Thursday night, said the probe has uncovered "serious leads" but did not elaborate. Apart from the four men - believed to be connected to the vehicle used in the bombing - detained and questioned in Sidon Wednesday, investigations are focusing on two suspects who bought the vehicle to use it in carrying out the assassination. Naharnet, quoting security sources, identified the first three individuals detained and questioned on Wednesday as fishermen Mohammad Masri, Talal Masri and Mohammad al-Atab. They were arrested in a raid on a house in Sidon's Taamir district. A fourth man identified as Hussein Nasser, was identified as the last man in whose name the vehicle was registered. Nasser sold the car just two days before the assassination to two unidentified men without even giving them a bill of sale or registering the car in their name. Investigators are trying to track down the suspects. The 35 kilograms of high explosives were packed into an olive green BMW 320 that was parked along Hajj's route. - The Daily Star

Is death the only thing that can bring Lebanon's politicians to the same room?

By The Daily Star
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Images from Friday's epic funeral for assassinated Lebanese Army General Francois Hajj stirred strong emotions, but they also confirmed the increasingly worrisome impression that his country's politicians are united solely in a philosophy of death. On the darkest days, the high and mighty come together to condemn terror and honor the fallen. Then they go back to reinforcing the conditions that cause the tragedies in the first place. In Hajj's case, as in all the others, a willingness to get together for reasons other than mourning might well have spared the tears of all his loved ones - and the trepidation of the country for which he fought and died.
It is no coincidence that Lebanon has a pressing need to witness such a meeting: The Presidential Palace has been vacant since midnight on November 23, and the resultant vacuum demeans the office, weakens the Maronite community which traditionally fills it, and erodes the confidence of all Lebanese in the likelihood of a solution to broader political problems. Each assassination, each missed opportunity for dialogue, and each day that passes without a president being elected is another nail in Lebanon's coffin. This slow and agonizing death is all the more painful to watch because it is both so unnecessary and so predictable.
The solution, though, is not to have members of Parliament from the ruling March 14 coalition go off by themselves and elect a new head of state by simple majority. That would only inflame some of the passions that have given the crisis its momentum. The answer is for both sides to sit down - now - and discuss which aspects of their respective bottom lines can be amended, delayed and/or discarded in order to get a president in place. Forget the egos that may be damaged, the alliances that may be strained, and the constitutional niceties that may be ignored: No individual's feelings, no group's tactical commitments, and no piece of paper's oft-violated principles are worth sacrificing a country and its people.
We do not know the name of the victim who will follow Hajj, only that he or she will die for no good reason. The writing on the wall is a crystal-clear warning in simple, single-meaning words and big, bold letters. Those politicians who cannot read what is written there need to step down and find work for which they are more qualified. Those who can discern the message but refuse to heed it should be jailed, for although ignorance is no defense in a court of law, prior knowledge of a crime makes accomplices of bystanders and conspirators of participants.
There are just a few working days left before Parliament is mandated to close down until its next scheduled session in March, exposing Lebanon's already fragile stability to a lonely and prolonged period of vulnerability. The opposing sides in the contest at which so few Lebanese wanted to be spectators have proven that they are stubborn. Mabrouk. Now it's time for them to prove that they can live up to their rhetoric about democracy, sovereignty and legitimacy by respecting their domestic opponents' rights, ignoring their foreign benefactors' demands, and preventing a final travesty that will only make all of them look misbegotten.

Sarkozy warns politicians have 'last chance' on Monday
Qassem: 'we want a consensus president as part of a full basket'

Compiled by Daily Star staff
Saturday, December 15, 2007
French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday urged all sides in Lebanon to grab a "last chance" next week to finally elect a president after a series of postponements, warning that any country which intervened to prevent a deal would be isolated on the international stage.
"Monday is the day of the last chance. France appeals to all parties, internally and externally, to work so that Lebanon can get a president of unity and consensus," Sarkozy told a news conference following a European Union summit. "France has been committed like no other country to help Lebanon sort out its difficulties, but Monday is the last chance," he added. After weeks of wrangling, rival political camps in Lebanon have agreed to nominate the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, General Michel Suleiman, for the presidency, which has been vacant since November 23, but a full deal is yet to be reached.
Wednesday's car bomb that targeted a senior military official, General Francois Hajj, prompted many leaders from across the political divide to call for a quick presidential election. But the opposition, led by Hizbullah, wants to reach a comprehensive deal before electing Suleiman a president, while the ruling majority wants to leave negotiations over controversial issues for a later stage.
Suleiman's presidency requires a constitutional amendment. The Constitution bars a sitting army chief from running for president and much of the wrangling today is over a mechanism to amend the Constitution and who should lead the negotiations between the opposition and the ruling coalition.
So far negotiations have been held between Saad Hariri, head of the parliamentary majority, and Speaker Nabih Berri. But Berri announced this week that his role has been handed over to MP Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, and that the majority should deputize someone to negotiate with him.
Deputy Hizbullah leader Sheikh Naim Qassem said on Friday that there will be no presidential election without prior agreement on a "full basket" of conditions that can be discussed with Aoun. "We want a consensus president as part of a full basket. The basket includes the election of a president and a group of points that we want to agree on before the election," Qassem said. "These points are defined and written on a paper that is in General Michel Aoun's pocket. Go and negotiate with him and we could reach a thorough agreement in 24 hours," he added.
The conditions included in the basket are based on the principle of "partnership," Qassem said. He said that this agreement is "the solution, today, tomorrow, after tomorrow and until the end of time."
Addressing the ruling coalition, Qassem said: "Start dialogue. Delegate a person you deem suitable to sit with MP Michel Aoun and start negotiating the points."
What could be agreed on, according to Qassem, "requires guarantees. Such guarantees can be agreed on during the dialogue, and they could be an official declaration under French auspices, for example."Qassem said that once both camps reach an agreement, they then can elect a president.
One of the debatable issues is distribution of seats in the new Cabinet, Qassem said. "All what we are talking about is the structure of the government," he said in reference to the traditional opposition condition of having veto powers in the executive authority. "We call for a quick political solution, if they are ready to accomplish this in a day or two then we are ready day and night," Qassem said. But Deputy Speaker Farid Makkari, a member of the March 14 coalition, accused the opposition of trying to obstruct Suleiman's election and said Berri was abandoning dialogue.
"Speaker Nabih Berri declared that he was commissioned by the opposition to negotiate with MP Saad Hariri, March 14's representative," Makari said. "When March 8 discovered that it is facing a strong candidate who enjoys wide support, Berri gave the candidate and MPs an ultimatum: either an unconstitutional amendment and the presidential elections, or no amendment and no election." Makkari said that when Berri's plot was "uncovered" by jurists and constitutional experts, he chose to abandon negotiations. "He started by trying to replace Hariri as the majority's negotiator with another figure, but the majority reiterated its commitment to Hariri as its representative," he said. "Afterward, the opposition commissioned MP Michel Aoun to negotiate on its behalf instead of Berri. Yet the result is still the prevention of Suleiman's election," he added. "The only outcome of commissioning Aoun as an opposition negotiator is that Berri has lost his capacity as speaker of Parliament," Makkari argued. Meanwhile, at a Phalange Party rally on Friday, former President Amin Gemayel called for renewed dialogue. During a ceremony at the rally, the president of the Phalange, Karim Pakradouni, announced that he is leaving his post in the party.
In other news, the US undersecretary for Near East affairs, David Welch, is expected to arrive in Beirut on Saturday. - With agencies

A rivalry transcending a nuclear Iran
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Saturday, December 15, 2007
It's not often that one has the stomach to call on political realists - all too frequently purveyors of foreign policy stalemate and pals of despots worldwide. However, realism was called for last week when American intelligence agencies released a National Intelligence Estimate claiming that Iran had halted work on its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Even halfhearted assessments of the national interest would have produced more insightful responses to the NIE than the ones that we got.
With everyone focusing on the nuclear issue, few noticed that regardless of whether Iran produces atomic weapons or not, its acrimonious rivalry with the United States in the Middle East is bound to escalate. Given that the US went to war in 1991 to prevent Iraq from imposing its hegemony in the Gulf area, does it make sense to assume that Washington would readily allow a threatening Iran to do what the Iraqis failed to?
There were two types of reactions to the NIE, both inadequate for dealing with the real stakes in American-Iranian hostility throughout the Middle East. The first focused on the fact that President George W. Bush as well as Vice President Dick Cheney had in recent months amplified their war rhetoric against Iran, even though Bush was told last August by the director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, that Iran's nuclear program "may be suspended." This seemed to contradict an earlier statement by the president that McConnell had told him no such thing.
The second reaction was rather different. With the nuclear threat allegedly on hold, politicians and commentators suddenly began advising the administration to engage Iran in some sort of discussion. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called on Bush to do what President Ronald Reagan had done with the Soviet Union and push for "a diplomatic surge necessary to effectively address the challenges posed by Iran." Republican Senator Chuck Hagel asked the administration to show the same flexibility toward Iran that it had shown toward North Korea. Rand Beers, who served as national security adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign, observed: "Simply put, we have an imminent need for a real dialogue with Iran, not a military confrontation."
It was certainly unsettling that Bush and Cheney were talking about a war with Iran when they knew, or should have known, that their stated justification for war was no longer valid. However, the rush toward advocating dialogue and flexibility was equally incomprehensible.
A dialogue over what? No one seemed particularly clear on that point. Suddenly, it seemed, the problem was not power politics and the thrusts and parries of the US-Iranian quarrel, but the Bush administration's stubborn refusal to be conciliatory. During the 1980s, in the midst of the debate over nuclear missiles in Europe, French President Francois Mitterrand famously declared: "The pacifists are in the West but the missiles are in the East." Of course there were missiles in the West then, just as there are those in Washington now who still favor war against Iran; but it's also undeniable that those wanting to open up to Iran are mostly on the American side, while Iran's leaders continue to relentlessly pursue strategic advantage in their own neighborhood.
The Iranians are playing three-dimensional chess in the Middle East, while the US is playing with its hankie. American policy in the region suffers from a lack of ideas. The administration's disorientation after the release of the NIE showed that in the absence of a war option (and an unpersuasive war option at that), the US remains unsure what to do about Iran. But the Democrats are equally at sea. Even an administration critic, Flynt Leverett, had to admit recently that "regrettably, opposition Democrats are not defining a genuine alternative. Beyond criticism of President Bush's 'saber rattling,' Democratic presidential candidates offer, for the most part, only vacuous rhetoric about 'engaging' Iran."
For example, what is the US doing about Iran's alliance with Syria, and their joint patronage of Hamas and Hizbullah? Hamas is dead set on wrecking American efforts to bring about a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and several months ago the movement mounted a successful coup against the Fatah movement in Gaza. The Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, lives in Damascus, is a frequent visitor to Tehran, and although Syria will send sporadic signals that it is displeased with the Islamist group, this is chaff designed to keep alive the illusion that Syria and Iran are on different wavelengths. Nothing will divide Syria from Iran when the relationship brings so many foreign supplicants to Damascus with offers of concessions to President Bashar Assad, if only he would consider abandoning Iran. Assad takes the concessions, offers none of his own, and yet the visitors still keep coming.
Iran and Syria are, similarly, putting on a "good cop, bad cop" routine in Lebanon. Damascus is steadily re-imposing its hegemony over its smaller neighbor, neutralizing or assassinating those who oppose a Syrian return. Iran is backing Syria up because Hizbullah will benefit. The Shiite group knows that the stabilization of Lebanon under a sovereign government would force it to surrender its weapons; and without weapons Hizbullah would cease to be Hizbullah. Iran needs the party and its arms to sustain its influence in the Levant, as well as to preserve a deterrence capability at Israel's doorstep. Damascus, in turn, needs Hizbullah to intimidate Syria's Lebanese foes. The Iranians are proving almost as instrumental as the Syrians in reversing the gains of the 2005 Cedar Revolution.
The US, meanwhile, continues to back Lebanon's anti-Syrian March 14 coalition. However, it is increasingly doing so from a distance. The Bush administration has spent much less money than Iran in Lebanon, and has not pressed its wealthier Arab allies to make up for the deficit. In fact it has been remarkably silent as one such ally, Qatar, has played an essential role in bolstering the Assad regime and Hizbullah. Worse, in the run-up to the ongoing crisis over choosing a new Lebanese president, Bush endorsed what would prove to be a disastrous French diplomatic initiative to facilitate an election. The initiative, in practical terms, invited the Syrians back into Lebanese presidential politics, undermining Washington's and Paris' declared aim of defending Lebanese sovereignty.
The Bush administration has also been catatonic in Congress. For example it has done nothing to press for passage of the Syria Accountability and Liberation Act, legislation that would substantially strengthen and widen US sanctions against Syria. The law is blocked in the House Foreign Affairs Committee because of disagreement over wording between the ranking Democrat and Republican members. The reasons for this are mainly domestic and electoral. Yet thanks to parochial politicking, the US government has been denied a valuable stick with which to defend its interests in the Middle East.
So, how does a dialogue look now? Iran would gladly draw the US into a lengthy discussion of everything and nothing, and use this empty gabfest as a smokescreen to advance its agenda. But diplomacy is not an end in itself; to be meaningful it has to achieve specific aims and be based on confidence that both sides seek a mutually advantageous deal. Nothing suggests the Iranians have reached that stage yet.
That's because Iran believes it is winning in the region. The US seems unable to deploy the same array of foreign policy instruments as the Iranians, even if it is vastly more powerful; America's principal Arab allies are anemic, their mostly geriatric regimes illegitimate; and America's attention span abroad often seems so limited that an adversary's favored tactic is to just wait until its officials lose interest and head for the lecture circuit. The Iranians are right: they are winning; at least for the time being.
**Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

Syria's Remote Control
December 15, 2007; Wall Street Jounal-Page A12
Wednesday's car bombing of Lebanese General Francois Hajj is being treated as something of a murder mystery because, unlike Lebanon's other recent assassination victims, the general was not an overt foe of Syria. Yet the method of his killing, along with the political benefits that accrue from his death, hardly rule out a Damascene hand.
Hajj made a name for himself earlier this year by routing Fatah al-Islam, a Sunni terrorist group that had been hiding out in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, up the coast from Beirut. This has led to speculation that Hajj was killed by that group to avenge its defeat. While that may be true, what's more significant is that Fatah al-Islam is widely suspected of being controlled and aided by Damascus. The sophistication of the bomb that killed Hajj -- a remote-control device similar to the one that killed anti-Syrian figures Gebran Tueni, Walid Eido and Antoine Ghanem -- underscores that suspicion.
No less important is that in targeting Hajj, who had reportedly been tipped to become the next chief of staff, a message has been sent that the Lebanese military is now fair game. The current chief of staff, General Michel Suleiman, is the nominee to be Lebanon's President, and Damascus is ambivalent about his candidacy. Murdering Hajj is a signal to General Suleiman and other officers not to chart too independent a course from Syria.
All this should alarm the Bush Administration, which was instrumental in evicting Syria from Lebanon in 2005. Instead, it has been helping to rehabilitate Bashar Assad's regime. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a point of meeting one-on-one with her Syrian counterpart at a regional meeting on Iraq in May. Syria's state-run news agency condemned the Hajj assassination via an unnamed government official, but the Syrians also condemned the murder with a remote-control bomb of Rafik Hariri in 2005. A U.N. probe into that murder has found overwhelming evidence of Syrian complicity.
The difference this time is that State Department spokesman Sean McCormack praised Syria for its condemnation, calling it "positive if continued over time." Maybe Secretary Rice believes she can get the Syrians to play nice on Iraq and Israel while thwarting their ambitions in Lebanon. For their part, the Syrians tend to view such American entreaties as signs of weakness. On Tuesday, Syrian Vice President Farouq Sharaa remarked that "no one in Lebanon, even with foreign support, can win the battle against Syria." The next day Hajj was dead, which, if nothing else, was a perfect illustration of Mr. Sharaa's point.

Don't trust nuke sneaks
U.S. report says Iran isn't building a bomb, but don't put stock in that assessment
Victor Davis Hanson, Tribune Media Services
December 14, 2007
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Digg Facebook Fark Google Newsvine Reddit Yahoo Print Reprints Post Comment Text size: Last week's U.S. National Intelligence Estimate states, with "high confidence," that Iran quit trying to get a nuclear bomb in late 2003. That's exactly the opposite of what the NIE reported just two years ago, when it claimed Iran's ruling mullahs were still developing nuclear weapons.
The reaction here at home to the new NIE was a good deal clearer than the often mealymouthed wording of the report. By an overwhelming margin, according to a Rasmussen poll conducted after the new NIE report's findings were made public, Americans don't buy that Iran has quit trying to go nuclear.
They may be wiser than the intelligence minds who put together the new NIE. After all, oil-rich Iran continues to enrich uranium even though it doesn't need new sources of energy. This enriched uranium can be used as terrorist dirty bombs or diverted to nuclear weapons rather quickly.
So isn't it a lose/lose situation if Iran still could be working toward being able to develop a bomb while our own intelligence services have now assured the world that that's not the case?
Yes--but the full answer is more complex, because the world itself has changed since the 2005 NIE even more than the unreliable opinions of our intelligence services have. Two years ago, the growing furor over the Iraqi war had created the conventional wisdom that Iran had come out the real "winner." Tehran's archenemy, Saddam Hussein, had been removed. And Iran was able to tie down the U.S. in Iraq through its Shiite terrorist proxies.
Meanwhile, with the U.S. busy in Iraq and the West split (former allies like France and Germany damned almost everything the U.S. did in the Middle East), Iran's ruling mullahs got a pass to cause more trouble in Gaza and Lebanon with subsidies to Hezbollah and Hamas.
But that was then. With Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election as president of Iran in August 2005, the United States was given a public relations bonanza. We no longer had to warn the world that the largely silent mullahs in Iran were unstable and dangerous. Loud-mouthed Ahmadinejad did all that and more for us.
When he bragged that a mesmerized UN audience couldn't blink when he spoke, or that Israel should disappear from the map, the rest of the world on its own concluded that he was either outright crazy or scary--or both.
There are now pro-American governments in France and Germany. Both are terrified about Iran. That's understandable since both--unlike us-- could soon very well be in range of Iran's newest North Korean-made missiles. Meanwhile, Iran's other interests in the Middle East have taken a hit. Hezbollah is still clearing out the mess from the 2006 Lebanon war; that will cost its Iranian patron billions in war reconstruction aid. Israel has proved that it can take out Syrian weapons facilities with ease; its recent raid of a suspected nuclear plant won the quiet applause of almost everyone in the Middle East.
Iraq is quieting down. The country's Shiite majority in the democratic government is increasingly acting a little more like nationalists than lackeys of Iran.
And the entire Sunni Arab Middle East is lining up against Iran, scared stiff that its traditional rival may still go nuclear and shake them down for either tribute or cuts in oil production. Internally, Iran gets worse each year. It spent billions on subsidies for terrorists and a pricey nuclear bomb plant that its people will now hear was shut down. And Iranians still can't figure out why gas is rationed when the country's oil earns $90 a barrel.
As the increasingly isolated Iranian economy tanks and the country becomes an international embarrassment, demonstrations against the government continue. At one last week at the University of Tehran, a sign blared out "Live free or die" -- the motto of New Hampshire.
What are we to make of this mixed-up picture of Iran and its nuclear program?
With the new intelligence assessment, our allies got, and did not get, their wishes. There will probably be no American pre-emption against Iranian nuclear sites and, unfortunately, less American strong-arming for more sanctions on an Iran that seems to have been already reeling under the pressure.
But there will also be for our allies the growing nightmare that a sneaky Iran could now think it is free to race to the nuclear finish line -- something that will endanger them far more than us.
Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. E-mail: author

Illegals from Syria – are there lessons to be learnt for Cyprus?
Financial Mirror
Cyprus seems to be losing out in the international public relations game, with little it can do to effectively clamp down on the rise of illegal immigrants coming from Syria, shipped from Latakia to the Turkish-occupied port of Famagusta and then smuggled across the UN-patrolled Green Line.
“What could Cyprus have done more?” one could ask, following the recent despatch of the Foreign Minister, as well as presidential envoy Vassos Lyssarides to Damascus in order to “demand explanations” from a friendly country.
Fortunately part of that crisis did not blow up in our face, as Georgia decided to strike the Turkish-owned ferry running the Latakia-Famagusta line off its maritime register and avoid international trouble, as Tbilisi is spending millions promoting the Caucusus state as a “reputable” business centre.
But the ship continues to operate the route and the illegals continue to arrive.
So, how bad did we handle the situation? Was Erato Kozakou Marcoullis wrong to haste to Damascus? Definitely not, but such visits should have taken place much earlier and more frequently by this administration.
Are the Cyprus diplomats in Damascus incompetent or are they are understaffed with poor knowledge of the realities in Syria?
Is the Foreign Ministry in Nicosia incompetent? Understaffing and lack of comprehensive knowledge of the Middle East are two of its biggest weaknesses, despite plans to open more embassies in the area and have a presence in all the EU member states and applicant countries.
We failed to raise the issue properly as the matter of ships using the ‘closed port’ of Famagusta played higher on the national agenda, while we played down the problem of illegal migrants.
Nobody cares about the status of the port of Famagusta, but our European partners do care about having several hundred if not thousands of more migrants on their doorstep and a burden to their welfare systems.
Cyprus did not pull the right strings in Brussels, while the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak and its subsequent resolution showed how one can best utilise the available resources within the EU.
Syria, too, showed immaturity as it continues to allow the use of Latakia as a launch-pad for migrants seeking a better fortune in Europe. Our mistake was not using Damascus’ fumbling to our benefit, while at the same time playing the role of goodwill ambassador between Syria that continues to fall deeper into isolation and some of the US-led western Europeans that want to impose more sanctions on Assad’s regime.
Is it not about time Nicosia embarked on a serious diplomatic offensive, armed with trade missions to all the Middle East capitals? Or are we going to leave this on the back-burner too, in view of the upcoming elections?